Good Bye Forced Funding of Union Advertising: Expect to see ‘paycheque protection’

Commentary, Workplace, Peter Holle

You can tell both Manitoba and Saskatchewan are heading into election season.

Advertising campaigns funded by public sector unions have begun rotation on radio stations in both provinces.  Billboards by the healthcare, education and public sector unions stressing continuity and the need to “protect” public services line the highways and major thoroughfares of the big cities where the elections will likely be won in both provinces.

CUPE, openly aligned with the NDP and over 500,000 members strong, increased its budget for political campaigns by $150,000 to over $800,000 “as a one-time increase to resource important elections during 2011.”  An interesting CUPE billboard in Regina features a smiling grandmotherly figure who ponders what could be done with higher resource royalties in Saskatchewan.  In Manitoba, CUPE is trying to frame the election argument by raising the Manitoba Hydro privatization bogeyman.

None of this messaging should surprise anyone.  In fact, spending on this type of “education” makes perfect sense.  Public sector unions benefit from high taxes that can be used to fund unionized public services. In turn, monolithic unionized bargaining units generate rich union due revenues.  Hence the constant education efforts to preserve government service monopolies by demonizing the possibility of privatizing services and moving to competitive contracting – policies not in union’s interest.

Let me make a controversial prediction: this is the last election with such a bonanza of advertising by the old style public sector unions, whose narrow interests utterly dominate public policy in Manitoba, other provinces and the federal government.

A harsh realpolitik has been unfolding for public sector unions around the world.  Be it the bankrupt welfare state of Greece, where the Socialist government is frantically privatizing services and assets to stave off fiscal collapse, or American states such as Wisconsin, which have cancelled collective bargaining for public sector unionshe days of the pampered, privileged public sector are ending.

The Harper Government’s swift dispatch of the postal workers union with back-to-work legislation, while not optimal, is a harbinger of things to come for Canada’s public sector union establishment. 

The striking thing (pun intended) about the union landscape in Canada and Manitoba, is how sharply skewed it is to the public sector.  Overall, 29.4% of Canadian workers are unionized in 2008, a figure down almost a quarter from 1981.  But the real story flies out when you break down that figure – unions have become mainly a public sector phenomenon.  Recent Statistics Canada data shows that nationally, over 71 % of the public sector is unionized compared to 16.3% of the private sector.   The numbers are more skewed to government in Manitoba, where 74.9% of government workers are unionized.

A substantial quirk of Canadian labour law plays into the hands of public sector unions.  In the United States, strict rules prohibit unions from spending members’ union dues to fund political and partisan causes because these monies exist to support collective bargaining costs, not partisanship.  In Canada, where labour law lags behind the international curve, individuals are forced to join and pay mandatory union dues because of the Rand formula, the provision originally implemented to prevent workers from reaping union benefits without paying dues.

Without getting bogged down in  labour law minutiae, this gifts huge resources to public sector unions to support the NDP and promote policies that expand/protect the unionized government workforce even if the dues-paying member objects.  Hence the CUPE billboard campaigns for higher taxes in Saskatchewan and the smear campaign against Manitoba Hydro privatization.   The constant demonization of privatization, contracting out, and more diverse education and healthcare systems involving private alternatives is funded by this mother lode of resources extracted from mandatory union dues. Workers are not protected from having their money allocated to parties or causes they oppose.

This forced funding of political causes will likely come to an end beginning later this year. Here’s why.

In Ontario, a teachers union put $3 million into a campaign to prevent the election of  Tim Hudak’s Progressive Conservative Party. This is the most brazen use of union due funding for political purposes to date in Canada and a tactic that crosses the line.

The Hudak campaign responded with a precedent-setting plan to restrict the use of union dues for bargaining purposes only, promising to implement “paycheque protection”.  The Party’s campaign platform states: “We will introduce paycheque protection so union members are not forced to pay fees towards political causes they don’t support.”

Rather than validate the CUPE’s campaign against privatizing Hydro with its own radio campaign of denial, the McFadyen Conservatives should announce that if elected in October, they will bring in paycheque protection to stop forced funding of partisan union advertising.